The hip-hop pioneers tell the stories behind "Push It," "Shoop," Whatta Man" and more
By Christopher R. Weingarten
Over the course of five albums released between 1986 and 1997, Salt-N-Pepa were funky pioneers popping the bubbles of rap machismo, taking aim at tramps, cheaters, gutter-minds, slut-shamers and smooth-talkers. After becoming first female rappers to be certified Platinum, partially thanks to the success of 1986's smash "Push It," they were included the very first crop of nominees for the Rap Performance Grammy. "I'll Take Your Man" helped shape the sound of New Orleans rap and 1988's "Shake Your Thang" became an important bridge between hip-hop and D.C.'s percussive gogo scene. Bolstered by singles like "Shoop" and Whatta Man," their 1993 album Very Necessary became a five-times-Platinum success, and the group ended up everywhere from Woodstock '94 to Deadpool.
"Back then, touring was really hard for us," says Cheryl "Salt" James. "We had young kids, and so the boys would be out on the road, they would tour for a whole year, Salt-N-Pepa, we would do, like, three months at a time. Now we're touring, like mad." The group is currently making up for lost road time crossing Canada as part of the I Love the '90s Tour alongside Kid N Play, Coolio, Kool Moe Dee, Tone Loc, Young MC and more. After an October run in the U.K., the tour will convene in January for the inaugural Ship-Hop Cruise, taking a nostalgia trip from Miami to Cozumel. It’s a fine time for them to look back, and Rolling Stone caught up with Salt, Sandra "Pepa" Denton and Deidra "Spinderella" Roper to find out the stories behind these trailblazing hits.
"The Show Stoppa (Is Stupid Fresh)" (1985)
Salt: We were working together at Sears. I had met Pep in our first year at Queensborough College, and we became friends. Hurby ("Luv Bug" Azor, producer) and I were in a relationship. Hurby was a music student and he was always working on beats and music and he wanted to produce a song.
Pepa: He was looking to put this band together. And I remember him asking me, "Can you rhyme?" … At work. At Sears. His desk wasn't too far from mine, his cubby hole. … I don't remember it all right now, but I remember it was something like, "I'm Sandy D, from coast to coast, somethin' somethin' somethin' I like to boast."
That, to me, was an audition. Even though we were good friends. I've never rapped in front of a crowd, ever in my life. I grew up with park jams. That's how I knew about rap. … The local MCs would grab the mic and start rapping. I just used to be so in awe and fascinated and like, "Wow, this is amazing!" But I would never, ever touch the mic. Heck no. 'Cause they was really, like, going in! I just had my little raps that I used to write, but I was nervous, I was scared. I always wanted to, but I never did. And Hurby was like the first person that was like, "Let me see if you could rap." And that was the first time.
Salt: We answered Slick Rick and Doug E. Fresh's "The Show," which was a bold move for these two little girls from Queens that no one had ever heard of before. … We recorded it in (Azor's) attic, and then we took it to Power Play Studios, and we recorded it professionally. He took it to Marley Marl, which was a DJ who had a radio show on WBLS – back then, you could only hear hip-hop on the weekends. And he promised Hurby that he would play the song. Finally, listening weekend after weekend, we were driving down Guy Brewer Boulevard in Queens, Pep and I, just hanging out, and we finally heard "The Show Stoppa" playing on the radio, which was one of the most exciting moments of our career. … Pep being the crazy person that she is. … She stopped the car in the middle of the boulevard, she jumped out of the car, and she started screaming, "They're playing my song! That's me! That's me on the radio!" And I'm like, "Get back in the car!" We started doing shows, based on just that record alone. So we were going to school, we were working at Sears after school, and on the weekends we were doing shows in Manhattan.
We were hearing rumors that (Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick) were gonna answer the record. We were nervous about that, because they were established, amazing male artists in this male-dominated field of music. So we were kind of bitin' our nails, waiting for that answer record that never came. One time we saw them at a club, and they were just really nice to us. They gave me the impression that they were saying, "That was really cute, girls." (Laughs) We were relieved that that was the end of it.
Pepa: Doug is such a great person, by the way. … I remember Doug E. Fresh telling me that Slick Rick was gonna get us, but Doug Fresh said, "Ah, let 'em live." Those were his exact words, "Oh, let them girls live." (Laughs)
"I'll Take Your Man" (1986)
Pepa: That was Hurby, definitely. He was a great writer. He wrote well for girls (laughs). I do like performing "I'll Take Your Man," because that was a hard song. And that was (a) very bold, in-your-face song. And, you know, I was in the streets. I wasn't from the streets, but I was in the streets. I had a good family, nice home, you know, I can't say I grew up with nothing … but I chose to hang in the streets. So for me, that was like, street credibility.
Salt: It was actually more my speed, to tell you the truth. Because, you know (laughs), I was pretty ghetto back then. My kids say I still am, but I think I'm very refined, myself. … By the time it was time to record "I'll Take Your Man," I had found my voice, we had found our voice, and was way more confident. Around the Web
Pepa: Being such a male-dominated world, we was calling out men for what it is, for what they were – tramps.
Salt: It was the A-side. "Tramp" was the song that we were putting out. But we needed a B-side, and the B-side was a rush. It was like, "All right guys, we need a B-side, let's throw something together," which ended up being "Push It," Salt-N-Pepa's biggest, most popular hit song ever. But "Tramp" was the song that we felt was the record.
Pepa: "Push It" to me was very pop. And back then, you were called "sell-out" to be pop. So "Tramp" to me was a more street-credit kind of record than "Push It." So I was glad "Push It" was on the B-side. I was betting for "Tramp." And that was crazy how it flipped. I mean, we had the video and everything first for "Tramp."
Salt: That was the first video we ever did. We did it at the Latin Quarter in Manhattan, which was a club that we used to frequent on the weekends. I couldn't sleep before anything important happened. I was really tired and remember just doing takes over and over and over again. I look back at that video and I'm like, "Wow, we were so young, we were so green." Our little dance steps were so cute.
"Push It" (1987)
Salt: We needed a B-side, Hurby, the genius that he is, got us in the studio and we just really started kind of playing around. And Fresh Gordon, to his credit, that he's never officially gotten on the record ... started playing that famous synthesizer line. And the song really built from there. It was in Brooklyn, Fresh Gordon's vocal room was a bathroom, a little tiny bathroom with a microphone. It was very hot and sweaty in there. Pep and I were in there together, and Hurby started dictating some of the lyrics to us. It was very unusual, because when you listen to "Push It" there aren't that many lyrics. It's mostly music-driven, so it was something different than what we were familiar with. So we just went along and trusted him, as we do, but we didn't really care for it. We were like, "I don't get it." We were like, "Ew," but, you know, it's only a B-side, whatever. Me and Pep, I think we're the only two people on the planet that "Push It" is not our favorite Salt-N-Pepa song.
Pepa: There are a few who were thinking we were crossovers, sell-outs or whatever, at the time, so I kind of panicked again when "Push It" was born. … I distinctly was like, "Hurby, you gotta be kidding me about this song. This is so pop. This is crazy." And I remember Cheryl and I looking like, "Do we have to do this?" He was so adamant about it, he was like, "We're doing this song." He didn't even care. It was something in him that just knew.
Salt: It was a DJ (Cameron Paul at San Francisco's KMEL) who turned it over and started playing it. We really owe the success of that record to him. And we were on tour at the time, Hurby called us and said, "Girls, start doing 'Push It'" and we were like, "What?" When we realized "Push It" was a hit, it was because we performed it and the crowd went insane. And we were shocked. We were just busy doing what we do. I think we were on the Fresh Fest tour with the Fat Boys or something. We were so busy, we had no idea that the song had been turned over and we had a hit record. A smash hit record.
Pepa: Salt and I didn't get it at that time. And we still don't get it sometimes. We'd be like, why's this song so big? (Laughs)
Spinderella: Two weeks into me being brought into the group, we was shootin' this video. … Now mind you I'm 16 years old, just turning 17, not even outta high school. If you ever see that video … I was up there like, "What the hell's goin' on?" (Laughs) I didn't have a big gig before Salt-N-Pepa. I was learning the technique. I didn't even know I was being a DJ. I was around my high school boyfriend who was doing parties and I was helping him, and then one day I was on his turntables in his room, and talking to him about somethin' that happened at school, and I'm scratchin'. And he's like, "Lemme hear that again." Then he started to show me the skills of being a DJ. It wasn't something I was trying to be, it was just something that I picked up. I did a couple school parties with my boyfriend. It wasn't like I did clubs, it wasn't like I was trying to be in a group. They found out about me and asked me to audition.
Salt: Back (in the Eighties), you had to submit to the rules of whatever state you were in as far as language during a concert. We were on stage and our tour manager was told if we sang this song, that we would be arrested. And of course, we didn't take that seriously. How are we going to do a concert without singing "Push It?" And when we got off-stage, they were there to arrest us, because they thought we were saying "pussy." (Laughs.) So we had to literally get an album and show them the words, that we were saying "push it," we were not saying the other word.
Pepa: People send me stuff all the time. "Push It" has morphed into so many things people use it for. Mothers having babies – push it! It's so crazy to me sometimes. … It started taking a life of its own. "Push It" led us. We didn't lead "Push It." … We totally lost our street credit after that. (Laughs.) We were no longer down.
"Shake Your Thang (It's Your Thing)" (1988)
Salt: "Shake Your Thang" was once again, the genius of Hurby tapping into the D.C., Virginia, Baltimore go-go market. … The collaboration with Salt-N-Pepa and E.U. on "Shake Your Thang" was a phenomenon for that area, which, for us, made us also legit in a whole 'nother way. For being part of a movement that wasn't necessarily celebrated.
Pepa: When "Shake Your Thang" comes on (in D.C.) it's bigger than "Push It."
Salt: It doesn't matter how many times we've been there – any time we come, they come. And we're always like, "Can you believe this place is full again? We were just here six months ago." And I think they just really, really respected the fact that we helped put go-go on the map.
Pepa: We cut up our jeans (in the video). Cut-up jeans – what, you gon' pay a thousand dollars now for some cut-up jeans – and that style did not exist then. And Salt-N-Pepa ripped their jeans up, that fashion was born from us as well, with that song. … People was looking at us like, "Their jeans is ripped." Yeah, we did it. We ripped it.
"Twist and Shout" (1989)
Salt: (buzzer noise)
Pepa: (Laughs) I'm going, "Here we go again." I'm like, "Hurby? 'Twist and Shout?' C'mon, dude. Really? C'mon. We ain't got no business singing that song."
Salt: First of all, the Beatles, like, c'mon. How do you even touch that? … And then it was hard on my voice, 'cause I'm not a singer, it was really, really hard to perform in the studio. It just felt like we were reaching. … I love the way that video came out. It was so cute. But I didn't think it was a powerful or appropriate career move for Salt-N-Pepa at that time.
Pepa: I don't think it ever did great. Or I don't even know if it was good in America, because everybody else probably felt the same thing we were feeling. But, dammit, overseas they loved that song. They loved that song!
Salt: We never performed it in the states, but every time we went to Europe, of course we performed it. It got a warm welcome. It kind of got by by the skin of its teeth in Europe. And I remember reading an article, a review where somebody said John Lennon is turning over in his grave because of "Twist and Shout," and it kind of solidified what I thought about it.
Pepa: We stopped doing it. We stopped. I don't care. Nope, nope. Dock us. Go get some money back. We're not doing it.
Salt: I was (Azor's) girlfriend, so I was always in the studio. I learned a lot watching him and decided that I wanted to do some producing of my own. It was the first song I wrote and produced, and it went Platinum. It was a Platinum Salt-N-Pepa single, which, for me, was insane. I couldn't even believe it.
Personally, it was me trying to see if what I witnessed and learned was something I could actually implement. And liberation from being Hurby's girlfriend. I wanted to start taking over the voice of Salt-N-Pepa more in the studio – more in control of what we wanted to say. And that might have been because of "Twist and Shout." That might have been a backlash. (Laughs) I don't know. I just know I had it in me.
Pepa: I was pregnant doing that video. … I remember having a hard time doing the video and I remember Salt having a little "pep" talk with me – literally – like, "Pull it together girl, you could do this." You know, I'm feeling all big and fat and just crazy. I'm usually being sexy or something in the video, and now I know even being pregnant is sexy, but back then, I'm thinking, like, "What?" I didn't feel it at the moment. … She had the little talk with me, and then something just came over me and I just took charge and I owned it, and I killed the video. … Being really pregnant in a video – it wasn't a prop or anything, we weren't acting. And that strength that came from that. I felt really strong. Really strong at that moment.
"Do You Want Me" (1991)
Pepa: We open with that song in our show. And that's a powerful song. And that's what makes us who we are, Salt-N-Pepa. It's songs like that. Empowering, strong ... and telling the guy, "Let me know."
Spinderella: I remember the guys in the video having crushes.
"Let's Talk About Sex" (1991)
Salt: "Let's Talk About Sex" was controversial. We knew it. We said it in the beginning of the song: "I don't think they're gonna play this on the radio," which was a calculated challenge. We had already gotten flak for "Push It" and so it was us being really, really bold and challenging the status quo of radio. The song was about talking about sex. The song was not about sex. (Laughs) The song was about communication and talking about a subject that nobody wants to talk about. So just from the gate, for me, it was brilliant. Because I knew it would catch everybody's ear, how could it not?
I remember somebody saying to my dad, "I used to love your daughter's music, but now she's going too far," and my dad saying to him, "Have you listened to the song?" And him going back and listening to the song and then coming back and apologizing to my dad.
Pepa: It wasn't a dirty song. It was an enlightenment song. Off the top, they thought it was going to be some raunchiness about this song. And that's why, when Peter Jennings, his daughter was listening to "Let's Talk About Sex" and he said, "What are you listening to?" And then he listened to the lyrics, and he was like, "Wow, this is a great song."
Salt: When Peter Jennings asked us to make it a PSA, then I rewrote it and made it, literally, a PSA about all the things that we don't know about HIV and a song to educate the masses ("Lets Talk About AIDS"). It made the song even more important. … People would start asking us questions about HIV and AIDS, and we became advocates for the Gay Men's Health Crisis. … It really actually was embraced. I mean, to this day, people use it. They tell me all the time in their sex ed class ... it's their theme song.
Salt: I think Hurby and I were probably broken up at that time, and so once again that was another level of liberation for me. "Shoop" was the first song that we wrote when we started working on that album (Very Necessary), and Hurby did kind of go, "OK, you guys you think you can write and produce Salt-N-Pepa music without me?" … And it was like we were kinda breaking up with Hurby. We were just tired of feeling like we were under his thumb, and that he was in control of so much. He was very busy with other artists at this point, which was a great opportunity for us to start doing our own thing.
Pepa: "Shoop" was my baby. I remember sitting, writing these lyrics in my Jamaica Estates apartment. … Everybody goes, "What does shoop mean?" And I say, "Shoop is whatever you wanna do. I just wanna shoop, baby!"
Salt: It was the first time Salt-N-Pepa did something just the two of us, totally and completely her and I together without Hurby. It was a fight with the record company, with Hurby, to make it the first single off the album. I mean, a real fight that we finally won. I don't think Very Necessary would be very necessary if any other song kicked that album off.
We were in Russia with Yo! MTV Raps and we were doing the White Nights Festival. We were miserable out there. It was night time all the time, it was Russia and we were tired, and the food was horrible, so we were literally bored to tears, hungry, aggravated.
Pepa: Not taking nothing from Russia, it was a culture shock. So we didn't eat much.
Salt: And a lot of times, we would go to my room and work out – that's how bored we were (laughs). We would be in the room working out, and when we came back from Russia, you see in the "Shoop" video what our bodies looked like.
Pepa: "Do You Want Me" and all those other times, we was bigger. We was thick.
Salt: My daughter was maybe three at the time, and we were never fat, but we had a little more weight on than we wanted to at the time, and so when we came back, we made the "Shoop" video and part of the success of that video, besides the fact that it was just so tongue-in-cheeky and so brilliantly done, was what we looked like. We owe it to Russia for those "Shoop" bodies.
Pepa: Whitney Houston came out with her "Shoop" ("Exhale (Shoop Shoop)") after hearing our "Shoop." She came out with her song. And she said that she wanted a song like "Shoop." She actually said that.
"Whatta Man" feat. En Vogue (1994)
Salt: One thing about Salt-N-Pepa, we've always been quite unaware of how famous we really are.
Pepa: I'm the one that said, "Let's get En Vogue." And they was like, "En Vogue?! We can't get no En Vogue!"
Salt: We were debating on the whole En Vogue thing, and we were like, "Do you think they'll do it?!"
Pepa: And, honey, what a collaboration.
Salt: I think "Whatta Man" was a great song but that visual, with me and Tupac in the bed together. … Oh that was him, honey. (Laughs) That was him.
Pepa: I was going with Treach at the time. ... Those girls got to pick they man. … Like, that's a fun time in videos. You get to pick boys. But I had a man, so I was stuck with my man. Cheryl was able to get Tupac! … I mean, I had my Treach, but I'm just saying. That's the fun time! That's when you get to go play! And you don't gotta hide it! (Laughs)
Salt: First of all, of course, every girl loves Tupac. And I remember my baby daddy at the time was in the room. I had to tell him to leave! (Laughs) And if you look at that video, I remember it because he was being quite bold, as Tupac of course would be, and I was being really shy. I'm kind of cringing back a couple of times because (shrieking) he's all over me, and we're in the bed together, in front of all these people! It was a great experience, but if I could have it now, I would have been a lot less shy. But yeah, he didn't show his face in the video. And there was some controversy around him at that time, and that actually was a record company decision. I actually called him and apologized, because hearsay is hearsay. We don't know ... a lot of times, it's guilty until proven innocent when it's supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, so that was a little bit hard, not to have his face shown in the video. Which wasn't our choice at that time. Me and Tupac had a little chemistry, but I knew not to mess with that. I wouldn't have been able to handle that guy! … When we won a Grammy, he sent us, to our hotel room, a cake shaped like a gun. I think it was a Glock. And we didn't know if he was threatening us or congratulating us. (Laughs). We were like, "What did we do?" This has to be his way of congratulating us. And it was. But that was such a Tupac thing to do.
"None of Your Business" (1994)
Salt: Being a mom, the "If she wanna be a freak and sell it on the weekend" part was the part that I was having a lot, a lot, a lot of problems with. I actually remember feeling kind of like I was going against everything that not only I'm about, but (also) Salt-N-Pepa as women and female empowerment and respect and everything. To me, that's basically condoning prostitution, which I don't condone, and didn't then, and still don't. So that was just something I would never, ever, ever say. Like, vehemently would never, ever say. So then me and Hurby were going back and forth, and I said, OK, so at the end, can I say something about judgment. The whole "Only God can judge" thing at the end was like my compromise with him or his compromise with me, 'cause he really wanted that line in the song. But it never, ever, ever, ever sat well with me.
Pepa: And of all the songs in the world to win the Grammy for. … I know kids look up to us. And I get it. But that was my song. ... And I like saying "none of your business." Because I live by that, to this day. … Yeah, we don't like, "If I wanna be a freak and sell it on the weekend," but guess what, it's none of your business. Because some girls, I know they sold it, and they went to college. But it's none of anybody else's business.
Spinderella: "Bone" was the word back then (laughs.) We were pushing the envelope, we were talking like we'd talk behind the scenes.
Salt: A lot of people disagree with me, they hate that I feel that way, I know Pepa does, but … I don't know. It's just the way that I feel. And I can't help it. Essence used to do a TV awards show. (Editor-in-chief Susan L. Taylor) asked us not to do "None of Your Business" as a woman. She explained the lyrics and what it's saying that she doesn't feel it's female empowerment-worthy, for Essence. And I understood it. So now I'm caught between a rock and a hard place and I said, OK, well, it's the hit song right now, it's part of our medley. That particular line I told her we would take out along with some other words. But when I got on stage, I kind of forgot, or lost it, because it was an industry audience, those things are kind of nerve-wracking and I said the lyrics that I said I would not say. And I remember her being so angry with us. But it made me go, "Wow, somebody that agrees with me about some of the things that this song is saying." And I didn't feel so crazy.
Pepa: We finally, after all these years, found a way to do this song, finally. ... I'm not gonna lie. I wanted to do that song. That's the song (that helped make the proudest) moment of my life, winning the Grammy, televised. Back then, they weren't even televising rap. And that song won me the Grammy, and I wasn't ashamed of it. So (Salt) got pissed, because everybody wanted to hear it. And she could tell that I disagreed. And it was feelings. She knew how I felt. I couldn't discuss it. I couldn't say, "Girl, do the song." I just had to take it. I just had to just live with it, her decision of not wanting to do the song at all. … We found a way that Salt goes off the stage, I do that song with the crowd, and they lose they minds. I honored her. I respect her decision. But my fans wanted that song.
"Ain't Nuthin' But a She Thing" (1995)
Salt: Yes! Yes! I wrote that song. … It was the polar opposite (of "None of Your Business"). And when I listen to the lyrics, I'm like, "Damn!" It's so empowering to me. And the video, I put the concept together and everything, the female soldiers and the firewomen and the astronauts. Celebrating being able to give birth. And Pep at the end of the video – guy was trying to rape her, and she beat the crap out of him with her purse. It was just like, Yes! Now this, for me, it wasn't a commercial hit, it didn't win a Grammy, but it was such a powerful female song.
Salt: Pepa, we call 'em "Pepa-isms," you know. Pepa's a talker. And she's Jamaican, so she says funny things a lot. So when I'm with her a lot of times, she'll say something and I'll be like, "That's a song." So it was one of those days. And she was talking about her life and, you know, how fabulous she is, and everybody wants to hang out with her. She was like, "'Cause you know, I got the champagne and the ha ha, right?" And I was like, "Damn, that's a song."
It ended up being for the movie (Bulletproof). I remember having a conversation with the head of the record company at that particular time, and saying, "Yo, can we push this? Can we put this out as a real single? Like take this seriously and put some weight behind it." And they were like, "Why?" I remember trying to fight to get that song played on the radio and not just have it be part of a movie soundtrack, but, you know, I lost that fight. It was a changing of the guards time, which Salt-N-Pepa get caught in a lot. Executives start leaving the company and then things start falling through the cracks. It was one of those situations. We were going from one company to another, so nobody really wanted to be bothered at that point. And that's kind of what happened with (final album) Brand New. We didn't really have a real home, and then Hurby wasn't involved, and it was a bad time for Salt-N-Pepa. So that record was never taken seriously at all, or never even attempted to be promoted.
"Gitty Up" (1998)
Salt: I think it was the first, last and only attempt the record company made to kind of put something out for (final album Brand New). It got a lukewarm response. But that video was insane. I practically edited that video myself, because it was like, we were in that situation where nobody cared. I had to fly to L.A. and sit with the editor. They were, like, so over us at that point. I just feel like based on the the Rick James sample, the video and everything, I thought it would have done better. But, you know, everything is not gonna hit.
Pepa: Yes, I had higher hopes for that song. I don't know what happened. … I felt cheated. The video was great. The song is sexy. Our flow was great. I had high hopes for that song. Something went wrong, and I wish I could play it again.
Spinderella: It wasn't our biggest single, of course, but it was a good depiction of us being sexy, and delivering those lyrics, and we were right in our prime
Salt: I had shortly left the group after that, because it was just emotionally, so many things going on and a lot of it was the friendship between Pep and I ... it was going south. And I didn't really understand what was going on. It was just one of those really bad, bad times in our lives, in our careers, personally, and business-wise, changing record companies and not knowing where we belong. I think that was just not a good time for Salt-N-Pepa period, to put out – even try to put out – music, because of all the things that were happening between us.
It took a while. Salt-N-Pepa got back together and we grew up and we had therapy and we hashed out our differences. With Iyanla Vanzant, actually. She helped us work out some stuff. And we realized a lot of things about our relationship and what happened between us. And the bottom line is I think we both just felt under-appreciated. But we were young. Once Salt-N-Pepa started, it just never stopped.